Anxious relatives on Israel-Syria border watch and wait as ceasefire takes hold

Perched with binoculars and cellphones from a hilltop in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, members of the Druze minority search for signs of their relatives next door in Syria — and that the ceasefire has taken hold.

From Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, men search for signs of family — and that the ceasefire has taken hold

With binoculars and cellphone in hand, a man perched on a hilltop in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights searches for signs of family on the other side of the border in Syria. (CBC)

Helpless looks like the Druze men on Israeli-controlled Golan Heights hilltop, with their binoculars, cellphones and bags of dusty apples from a nearby orchard for fuel.

Actually, the way some of them bite into those apples, it's possible they're there also as outlets for frustration, if not fury.

Through their binoculars, in the 72 hours leading up to the ceasefire, members of this ethnic and religious minority watched the war next door in Syria — the militants moving not-so-steathily through the groves, the smoke rising from villages where family members still live.

Watching and waiting

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Members of the Druze minority in the Golan Heights anxiously watch the bombing of villages on the Syrian side of the disputed Israel-Syria border and wait for the ceasefire to take hold 0:55

Between the thuds and booms and thumps of warfare unfolding just a few kilometres away, they grabbed those cellphones.

Dialing, dialing, dialing the numbers of brothers and cousins who do not pick up.

Assad Safadi says he hoped but didn't really expect anyone to answer. Still he feels compelled to try.

"It's a war over there. Maybe they've been cut off from power or a signal. It's terrorism," he explains in Hebrew.

The land these men stands on was part of Syria when they were growing up. Today many members of the Druze ethnic and religious minority are cut off from relatives in Syrian villages to the north. (CBC)

When Safadi was born, the land he stands on now was still Syria, but after the 1967 war when Israel occupied this stretch of the Golan, his family was cut off from relatives in Syrian villages to the north. It's a familiar story among many Druze.

In Israel there are roughly 130,000 members of this group.

The view from the hill

Standing nearby, Yihya Abd Walid sweeps his arm across the battered plains before him to offer the lay of the land. To the right, near some all-but-abandoned villages, is the turf of the militants from Jabhat Fatah al Sham. He is sure it was fighters from that group we saw crawling through the groves. They were once affiliated with Al Qaeda and are still in the sights of Syria, Russia and the United States during this ceasefire.

To the left, he gestures, is the community of Hader. He maintains it is still some 15,000 strong. Hader is home to many of his family members. It's a town under Syrian government control but also facing a strong offensive from various rebel groups. In the last days before the ceasefire Monday night, all sides wanted to grab as much of this strategic stretch as possible.

Firefighters extinguish a fire on Sunday following an airstrike by forces loyal to the Syrian government in the rebel-held area of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus in the final days before the ceasefire came into effect. (Mohammed Badra/EPA)

That's why the bombardments only grew more intense as the hours ticked down. 

Abd Walid says last he heard "the Syrian army gives weapons to the villagers of Hader, to fight against Nusra Front [now called Jabhat Fatah al Sham]. If they don't have weapons, how will they fight?"

The war hasn't always stayed in Syria. Several times this past week mortars have landed in the Golan Heights. Israel has responded by striking Syrian artillery positions. There has been a fair amount of posturing from these two old enemies who are coiled and staring at each other, Syria boasting that it shot down an Israeli fighter jet, Israel saying that's just not true — that Syria tried, but missed.

In the final hours before the ceasefire in Syria Monday night, as well as those that followed, Druze men living in Israeli-controlled Golan Heights looked to see if the fighting had indeed stopped. (CBC)

Some of the Druze men, sad scouts watching all this unfold, stayed on that hilltop until the moment of the ceasefire.

Abd Walid explained by phone this morning that, yes, the fighting did seem to stop for a while, but he has heard it pick up again. 

"Every five minutes we hear it," he said. "But mostly shooting, not mortars or shelling." Those are the rebel forces, he reasons.

He did say someone finally answered a phone — a landline. 

"He said the situation is very difficult."

That's hard to hear for people already wondering what on earth they can do to make any of this better. People who already know the answer is absolutely nothing.

About the Author

Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.